In this series, I speak with people who know what desperate feels like. While now blooming into success, these founders share with me their deeply personal financial struggles and lessons learned on their way back to black.
Right now, Yegi Saryan is in an RV in Washington, or Illinois—or maybe Texas. She and her fiancée, who she persuaded to quit his job, are on a 10-month road trip throughout the U.S. The adventure is one part gift to herself—this is how she’s celebrating the success she worked so hard to achieve—and one part work. Yegi is expanding her busy beauty business into other parts of North America, while back home, in Burbank, California, her staff is running her salon and helping oversee online orders.
It wasn’t always this way for the first-generation American. She learned from an early age that she’d have to be responsible for her own success. Despite funding and immigration challenges, Yegi paid her way through a business degree, master’s, and beauty school. And when no one would give her the title she deserved, she gave it to herself.
But to prove to her old-school parents that she could make it with her business, Yegi Beauty, she put her family home in jeopardy, racked up immense debt, and struggled to pay it back. Yet she succeeded. Today, her dad works for her, and her booming business affords her the American dream she always sought.
In Yegi’s words:
“I was 9 years old when my family migrated to the U.S. from Armenia. Generally, it’s pretty hard to become a U.S. citizen—it’s a pretty long process. My parents’ language barrier was huge, so I had to take responsibility for learning how to get by.
I graduated high school with over a 4.0 GPA, and I applied to a lot of colleges. I got in, but when it was time for me to apply for financial aid, I had no status, no social security number, nothing. I couldn’t go to college because my family had no money, and I couldn’t get funding from the government or even any type of loan. Really, it’s like you don’t exist.
I was determined to make sure that my family was going to be taken care of.
I was 19 when I finally had a status. I started going to Glendale Community College, and I was working on my engineering degree, because I really loved math and science. Then my brother got really sick. Since my mom couldn’t work while she was taking care of him, I knew I had to do something to make money. I knew I needed to quickly get a degree and get a job. I transferred to DeVry University, and I did my business degree within a year and a half. I was also working at the university and had a part-time job as a preschool assistant. I was determined to make sure that my family was going to be taken care of.
Back when I was in high school, I had a big passion for beauty, and I was doing an after-school program for trade work. I took cosmetology and collected hours towards my license. It was just fun for me, though. I had really old-school, traditional parents—I never considered beauty as a career, because I wanted to please them.
It was really, really hard to get a business loan, so I had to risk the house.
The university where I worked was in a galleria where there was also a Paul Mitchell beauty school. I thought I could go to night school and finish my beauty degree, just for the heck of it, honestly. I just didn’t like the fact that it was half-done. So, while I was doing my master’s degree and working full-time, I also went back and finished my cosmetology license. I would work from 8 am to 5 pm and then go to school at night from 5 pm to 10 pm.
By then, I’d been with the university for six years, but I still couldn’t afford the life that I thought I would be living. I did everything right—I should be able to live the American dream. I applied for a really advanced position, which I was qualified for, but I was told I was too young to lead people. I was really upset.
That’s when it hit me: I needed to start my own business. If they didn’t think I could manage and lead people, I needed to give myself a position where I could manage and lead people. I remembered that I’ve always loved the beauty industry. I was already old enough to not care what my parents thought. But they were also depending on me. The house was under my name.
A lot of people didn’t really know how much debt I was in because I didn’t want to hear anybody’s negativity.
I took a lot of risks. I didn't know how hard it would be to open a business. I needed a lease. I needed a location. I needed employees. I needed to learn everything. It was really, really hard to get a business loan, so I had to risk the house. I borrowed against my 401(k), and I got into over $100,000 debt, including my credit cards. A lot of people didn’t really know how much debt I was in because I didn’t want to hear anybody’s negativity. My family didn’t really know that I had the house on the line. They definitely would not have approved. But I knew it was going to be fine.
It was very, very stressful. When I first opened the business, I didn’t have enough money to hire a front-desk person or a cleaner. And I was paying, like, $500 in credit card interest each month. I realized I had to do everything on my own. I was working from 10 am until, like, 11 pm. I knew I just had to do whatever it took. There were times when I was doing a $200 service for $9. I was actually losing money, but I looked at it like, ‘I’m just marketing. If they like me, they’ll come back, then they’ll pay.’ I really sucked it up for a long time while I built a clientele.
I still remember the day I paid off my debt. I had a little over $20,000 left on my business loan, and I was just so ready to be debt free. I was at a point financially where I could just pay it off, and I still remember what an amazing feeling it was. I could not believe it. I kind of felt like, ‘Oh, my God, I made it.’ ”Illustration by German Gonzalez